My initial reaction to the announcement that Neil Young would be performing a special Canadian tour to raise funds for the legal defense fund for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation was, “right on!” I posted links to the tour dates everywhere that I could. My second reaction to the tour, having heard Neil Young in an interview with Jian Gomeshi was, “oh shit”. Admittedly Neil Young is before my time and I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to him and didn’t know what to expect, but from a public relations standpoint I thought the interview was a huge fail. If the issue was Treaty rights (a very critical, oft underrepresented issue in Canadian media) and the legal defense required to protect those rights it did not feature largely enough in the interview.
I often question things in terms of marketing and public relations, no matter my relation to the actual issue. It helps me to understand what is happening, or where something is bound to go, on a deeper level if I can determine how a subject is being framed. And while I may disagree vehemently with a person or body, I am generally impressed by the skill that goes into a good propaganda campaign, or ‘spin’.
Take “the oilsands”: the “oilsands” is an industry-generated term used to describe what used to be commonly known as the tarsands by everyone, including industry. At some point, some savvy person(s) must have determined that “tar” has a dirty sound to it, negative connotations all around, but “oil”- well oil sounds like jobs, like energy, like revenues, like an investment. The fact is that neither term is accurate, though tarsands better reflects the look and feel of the stuff. The most accurate term would be bitumen sands. But accuracy doesn’t matter in public relations: oilsands has become the accepted term in most circles, and if you slip up and use the old term (think back to Thomas Mulcair) it must be because you’re anti-energy, anti-revenue, anti-industry, anti-the-free-world. Granted many environmentalists prefer tarsands and use it purposely, but let’s be real- they are bitumen sands. Never mind though- I do appreciate the quality of this particular campaign, as industry has managed to shape language, and that my friends is impressive.
But back to Neil… I understand his concern about the bitumen sands development. (For those of you Conservative defenders who refuse to even entertain that side of the argument, do you remember Peter Lougheed? Even he was concerned by the rate of development. It’s not un-Conservative to be pragmatic.) But I felt the interview focused entirely too much on that part of the argument, and on Neil’s own musical and activist history, and entirely too little on Treaty rights and the fact that the First Nations peoples of Canada are having to mount legal defenses that they can hardly afford because our Canadian government is favouring corporate interests over human rights. Treaty rights are a critical issue in Canada. The world has recognized it (it frequently comes up at the UN) but we here at home do not.
Neil Young had an excellent opportunity and platform to really drill this point home (excuse the pun) and he missed it, in my opinion. Had he had a handler, she’d have been shaking her head in the hallway. (“Stick to the issue, Neil, don’t make it about you.”) Of course anyone concerned about the environment can understand and relate to the very deep frustration that people just aren’t getting it, and the desire to try one more time to engage the public, and the very real fact that bitumen sands development is directly related to this particular legal challenge facing the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. But the opportunity to really draw attention to the abuse of Treaty rights in Canada was undermined by the hot rhetoric about environmental degradation and in particular the bitumen sands.
Afterwards I said to my husband, “I wouldn’t want Neil Young representing me on any issue.” I expected Neil to generate a decent amount of cash for the ACFN, and appreciated that, but I felt the issue of Treaty rights would largely be ignored and forgotten (again) in short order. And then the proponents of the oil and gas industry came out in droves… And so did a great many of the Albertans whose livelihoods depend on that industry, or at least believe that they do (see above and how easily we came to accept the term “oilsands”). Facebook was loaded with anti-Neil and pro-“oilsands” rhetoric, and the arguments were sophomoric at best.
“Look at those tour buses” (equivalent to “you do it too- nani nani poo poo”), “records/CDs are petroleum products” (see previous argument), “has-been rocker” (“pooh-head!”), “un-Canadian” (a charge borrowed from American politics, to quash protest by suggesting a person has no right to speak, or is unpatriotic if they take a certain stance on an issue), “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (in lieu of an actual argument). And on and on it went. I see it’s still going strong this morning with new posts, many linking to the same article about how Neil Young’s entourage buses were left running outside a Calgary news conference.
I truly (truly, deeply, sincerely) feel that we would benefit as a society by offering Critical Thinking at the elementary and secondary school level, rather than offering it as an elective in university- but that’s best left for another discussion. What amazed me is that the oil and gas industry and its proponents, or ‘dependents’, is that they generated far more attention for Neil Young, the benefit concerts, and the issues of bitumen sands development and First Nations treaty rights than Neil Young could ever have done on his own, regardless of his rock legend status. It’s been in the news every day, and all over social media, and being talked about amongst friends- it’s everywhere.
I still feel that the issue of Treaty rights deserved a lot more attention than it got. But the tour generated much more discussion than I expected, and it delivered on the goods- exceeding fund raising goals. Where Neil Young may have failed to stay on topic, and is not the eloquent speaker one might hope for in a spokesperson, his adversaries spoke volumes for him and kept the conversation going and in the news longer than Neil and all of his supporters could ever have managed on their own. Hopefully, some people will even look further into the issues both of bitumen sands development and Treaty rights.
And maybe, just maybe, this bit of an unintended social experiment will lead people to consider their own reactions to criticism of bitumen sands development, and how this relates to Treaty rights. Chances are, if you were among the anti-Neil crowd, you also live in a neighbourhood in which you expect access to clean water, clean air (at least insofar as you don’t have to wear a mask to go outdoors), uncontaminated soil in which to grow your flowers and vegetables and for your children to play in, maybe you even expect to have some say as to what will be built in your area. Perhaps you don’t like the idea of recent parolees living in a halfway house down the street from where you’re raising your family, or you don’t want a homeless shelter one neighbourhood over because “crime may go up”. You’ll probably have a say in that. Alberta has already restricted pesticide use that might harm your health- and that’s a good thing.
But if you were Native and living on traditional Native land, you wouldn’t have the same luxury of deciding what is acceptable or not. Not if it interfered with corporate interests. And that’s worth looking at, isn’t it? Because I don’t think that any of us (read: non-Native peoples) would consider that fair. As a matter of fact, it’s not even legal. But it’s happening. And you’re a part of it. Every time that you defend your “way of life” as having more importance, more weight, than our Native brothers and sisters you contribute to the social license this government feels it has to trample on the rights of Native peoples to equality. (And “ignoring” the Treaty rights aspect of the discussion does not make a person less guilty.)
Any time that an issue causes us to become immediately defensive, it’s worth examining. I get worrying that your lifestyle may be impacted. I get it. It makes sense. But by the same token, I don’t think that I have the right to demand someone else sacrifice their health, or ability to provide for their family, or their personal safety in order to preserve my lifestyle. That would imply that I somehow feel of greater importance, or deserving of “extra” rights. If my lifestyle impacts yours, or yours impacts mine, I think we need to have a very real discussion. And that’s what First Nations peoples across this country are asking for- a discussion, a say in their future. I believe they’re entitled to that. How can we ever move towards reconciliation if we refuse to reconcile our ways? There will come a time when the First Nations peoples of Canada do not have to mount a legal defense in order to engage in a meaningful discussion. How long do we intend to prolong that day, and to what end?